Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



November 2008

"Every time I make a new painting or poem, I faithfully record its birth by placing its picture in an album or its title in my diary. At the end of the year, I add up the new works I have made. It is a number that matters, but today I will question its authority over me. Is producing new work the most important measure of my claim to being a visual artist/writer? "


Judy's Journal, March 2008

Circling Back to a Persistent Concern: Report from the Field

Dear Reader,

Making new work is the juice of an artist/writer's life. This is an old conclusion made fresh after many months making new paintings, but not producing any new poems. What have I been doing with myself?

A look back at this year's Judy's Journals offers a partial answer: revising my poetry manuscript (July), preparing for a solo art exhibit (April), reading art history books (September), immersing myself in a new series of paintings (August), and finishing production of one hundred hand-made artist's books, which until September took two weeks out of each month (February).

Although I work every day at my writing, no new poem has emerged. I read others' poetry every day, but have written no new poem. I jot in my journal, but no new poem rises to meet me.

Not that my muse hasn't been active all these months. She has placed me in hundreds of situations that could be transformed into new poems: stopping me cold during a news report, or replaying someone's comment in my head until I find myself saying, "I need to write about this," or having me read a poem and say, "This narrative is similar to a poem I have been thinking about writing, but haven't.

The root of the problem could be this: on only a few (unsuccessful) occasions have I sat down and said, "I will not get up until I have connected with a new poem." Donald M. Murray, my teacher and constant writing presence, gave his students a laminated card that has on the front, in large letters,

Write first each day
Complete one writing task every morning
Know tomorrow's task today

On the back are about 15 quotations from writers about their work ethic. The first one is from Flannery O'Connor: "Every morning between 9 and 12 I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper. Many times I just sit for three hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing: If an idea does come between 9 and 12, I am there ready for it." True to his work ethic, Murray's habit of collecting writers' process statements evolved into Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers (Heinemann).

The Power of the Deadline
Painting or writing? Round and round I go, running my muse ragged. What will it be today? Almost eleven years of making that decision have taught me this: deadlines definitely help. They can be self-imposed (fourteen paintings should be enough of a body of work for this theme; I need to send five poems to a journal by the end of the month) or other-imposed (I need to prepare for that exhibition meeting; a deadline for submissions for a particular journal is looming).

The Need for Community
What will it be today, painting or writing? There is another answer: community. I define the term in this way: making the effort to stay connected with artists and writers, living or dead. It seems easy to do: Attend an artist's talk (the Museum of Fine Arts/Boston - Rachel Whiteread, sculptor) or an exhibit on Georges Rouault (McMullen Museum of Art - Boston College). For a Worcester poet, there is no shortage of local riches. Whenever I attend or participate in poetry readings, I feel the power of community. Belonging to a small response group whose members are trust-worthy and constant is another.

One year ago, I stopped being part of a monthly poetry response group that had met for seven years. I thought that I needed a break. Two months ago, when I rejoined the group, I suggested that we reestablish our ties by discussing and critiquing poems by others. The members graciously agreed. My real reason for making the suggestion? I was filled with anxiety that my poetry muse had deserted me permanently, and that I would embarrass myself and waste my group's time. For months, I had not gotten the buzz, the lost in the word, the "in the groove" feeling when I was composing a poem.

As I prepared for the second meeting, it was time to confront the muse head-on. In September, I had attended a poetry group in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The host, Tony Hoagland, gave us a series of poems by David Lehman and told us to choose one his first lines to begin a freewrite. The muse remained cold and distanced. Nothing I wrote warmed to an "I could be a poem" temperature.

At home, I read C.K. Williams and Wislawa Szymborska for inspiration. A week passed. Nothing. I brought the Tony Hoagland writing suggestion to my response group. I tried drafting a poem for the next few weeks. Nothing happened.

I kept trying. I had to. The group was meeting soon. One day last week, those images and narratives my muse had been offering me clicked. Altering one of Lehman's first lines and using it in repetition, I wrote about the TV news story that I couldn't forget, a casual observation of a man on a train station platform, and a series of related incidents that had happened at the gym. It was a poem. I felt the buzz, I was lost in the word, and I felt that groove thing once again.

In this case, it was the dual effect of an enforced deadline coupled with meeting with my poetry group that brought me back to writing a poem. It worked this time. Who knows what it will take the next time I spiral into a sustained slump?

Have you ever been in a writing slump? How do you pull yourself out and get on with the work? Write to me: